Jolene Frechette is a Menominee artist who has been working since 1989 in a style that is decidedly contemporary. There is an essential tension that suffuses all her work between her Menominee heritage and the way the popular culture perceives Indians. “I am a Native American, and yet American culture is my culture,” she explains. “That’s the contradiction I have to work with.”

Reconciling the two worlds has not been easy. “Our ideas of Indians come from movies made in the fifties. John Wayne, the Lone Ranger—and of course television. F-Troop was such crap. It was a really stupid show.” When she was little, friends once asked her if her grandparents lived in a teepee. Were they kidding or just goofing off? She never knew. “Some people feel like they have to be mirrored somehow in the popular culture,” she says, “but early on I realized that pop culture didn’t reflect the Indian in me.” By the time she was a teenager, she knew that pop culture was full of all kinds of distortions: about women— about minorities. About the world in general. At the same time, however, she was a child of the same pop culture the same as everyone else—and found herself alternately repelled and fascinated by it. Today, the influence of pop culture floods her canvases, but she turns that influence against itself—juxtaposing images in a way that effectively challenges the absurd assumptions implicit in that culture. When she addresses her own heritage, her pieces soothe and sting viewers into a deeper awareness of how distorted our visions of Native Americans have become in this country. Her depictions of “Indians” as seen through the lens of pop culture are saturated with irony, sly humor and a kind of anger that simmers just beneath the surface of the benign pop images.

Many Menominees have French names because of the French influence in their territory during the fur trade in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In the painting How I Got My Name, Frechette depicts the meeting of two ancestors as a kind of mildly humorous accident—a collision between a beautiful Indian woman and a Frenchman dressed as a fur trapper in a modern grocery mart. “It’s like a Doris Day movie,” says Ms. Frechette,“—but with consequences.” A similarly gentle, yet penetrating irony may be seen in her painting The Only Good Indian Is A Toy Indian, in which two blonde children watch a television screen where a woman combs the hair of a doll that looks like a Pocahontas Barbie.

In Putt Putt Reservation the mirror is turned about—and we get a peek at how Ms. Frechette views some of us. The “reservation” is transformed into a roadside miniature golf course where players tap their balls into the doorways of tiny teepees, and tourists stop to document the sights with their cameras and camcorders. Jolene doesn’t think that “New Age“ thinking offers much of an improvement on the F-Troop mentality. “Some of these new age people really get to me,” she observes. They want to have a “talking stick” or they want to visit a “sweat lodge” because, they say, “We love you.” She doubts that the future will offer much improvement.

Rosebud Issue #21

136 pages, $8

Rosebud Issue #22
136 pages, $8

from Rosebud 21 ©Jolene Frechette
from Rosebud 22 ©Jolene Frechette